In 2008, the Marine Corps' combat death toll in Iraq was eclipsed by the number of Marines killed in motorcycle accidents: 25 to 20. In the same 12-month period, the Army reported 48 motorcycling deaths and the Navy 33. The Air Force bike accident rate is about half that of the Navy's, but still significant – and tragic. Most of these fatalities were suffered by young military men, off duty, thrown from sport bikes at high speeds.
Any young man or woman with a motorcycle license – in uniform or not – can walk into a shop, make a purchase and speed away. Today's machines are faster than full-blown racing bikes of 20 years ago. Back then, professional racers were crashing, burning and getting pummeled on closed-circuit courses with one-way traffic, overrun areas, safety barriers and trauma teams. Today, atop bikes of similar muscle, young riders have little more than their self-control separating them from a deadly disaster; distracted drivers – making calls or text messaging on their cell phones inside their cars – typically outweigh bikers fivefold. The military has been concerned about motorcycle safety for years. All the branches use the Basic RiderCourseSM (BRC) curriculum developed by the Motorcycle Safety Foundation, a 36-year-old nonprofit rider education and training organization. The BRC, which satisfies motorcycle-license training requirements for civilians in many states, is good for what it is: a basic rider course. It teaches elementary clutch/throttle/braking skills at low speed in a parking lot-sized area. While valuable to a person who's never ridden, the BRC falls far short of preparing anyone for a 175-horsepower replica racer. The Experienced RiderCourseSM ups the ante but still falls short of satisfying the high-speed safety demands for high-performance bikes. Late last year, the military launched a dedicated and realistic inter-service effort to meet the challenge of motorcycle safety for today's machines. In partnership with the Navy, the Motorcycle Safety Foundation developed the Military SportBike RiderCourseSM. On May 1, DoD gave the new course a publicity push at a Pentagon parking-lot gathering called the Third Annual National Capital Area Joint Service Motorcycle Safety Event. The Motorcycle Safety Foundation distributed booklets with safety messages from World Superbike maestro Ben Spies. The theme was sport-bike riding and safety, and several luminaries – including the Army and Navy secretaries – gave call-to-action speeches. Also participating were off-road motorcycle racer Annell Allen, Miss USA Kristen Dalton and racing legend Kevin Schwantz. In 2001, Schwantz opened a training school for bikers at the Road Atlanta facility in Georgia. Founded as a track school with a racing orientation, safety – not speed – is the emphasis. Schwantz recently moved his school to the famed Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Ala., where he has backing from Honda and Suzuki. The Motorcycle Safety Foundation recognizes Schwantz's concern for preserving the lives and limbs of motorcyclists. At the Pentagon event, MSF managing director Al Hydeman presented Schwantz with a certificate, recognizing his school as complementary to the Motorcycle Safety Foundation philosophy and approach to training. Hydeman, who recently completed a two-day training session at Schwantz's school, said the certificate represented an "alignment of thinking." He said he came away from the program better educated and highly enthused. MSF's recognition of the racing-oriented school signals its appreciation of the fact that young motorcyclists on sport bikes – servicemembers or not – all want to do the same thing: ride fast. "What we are saying now is that track schools are good things," Hydeman said. "They are the places to learn to ride fast safely, and they are the proper places to do that." At the Pentagon event, Schwantz suited up and got onto a blue-and-white Suzuki GSX-R600 to demonstrate a couple of moves from the new Military SportBike RiderCourseSM: a quick stop, and how to navigate a decreasing radius turn (one that gets tighter and tighter the farther along you go). He executed the moves with flawless precision, as one would expect from the 1993 MotoGP world champion. Safety Pioneer. Best known as a motorcycle safety trainer, Lee Parks now sells what he describes as the "world's finest deerskin motorcycle gloves" out of Victorville, Calif., at Lee Parks Design. An old Route 66 town, Victorville sits on the northern side of the forests that form a brow over the Los Angeles-San Bernardino megalopolis, a high-energy place that perfectly suits the fast-talking, quick-thinking Parks. A decade ago, he was riding motorcycles fast, too, and making a name for himself on the American Motorcyclist Association racing scene. But he was inconsistent, Parks admits. "One day he'd win," says longtime friend and colleague Tracy Martin, "and the next day, he'd barely make it into the top 10." Parks is both quick and analytical – necessary qualities for those who wish to ride fast and stay alive. Since track lap speeds depend mainly on how well a racer turns, Parks analyzed the dynamics of cornering. He considered the interplay between bike suspension settings, body positions, throttle control, braking, clutch control and shifting. He wasn't the first to examine this array of variables, but he was the first to assemble his observations and conclusions into a practical, hands-on training course for the average motorcyclist. His street credit was good, too. Using his own principles, Parks won the WERA National Endurance Series (lightweight class) in 2001. In the early days, at the invitation of motorcycle groups, Parks staged training sessions in out-of-the-way parking lots. Demand for the courses grew and eventually exceeded the capabilities of the two gainfully employed friends to meet them. So, in 2003, Parks wrote and published "Total Control: High Performance Street Riding Techniques," the first book of its kind. At the time, Parks was also the editor of Motorcycle Consumer News. After "Total Control" was published, Parks figured the book would put an end to public craving for their brand of hands-on education; he'd be able to sit back and collect royalties. Instead, "Total Control" merely fueled riders' appetite for more parking-lot instruction courses. So Parks decided to go for it, making arrangements – including some with Motorcycle Safety Foundation course providers and instructors – to add Total Control Advanced Rider Clinics to augment sessions given by Parks and his own stable of teachers. Business boomed. At the beginning of this year, nearly 150 Total Control and follow-on Total Control II classes had been scheduled. As the schedule unfolded, U.S. military members began signing up to spend their Saturdays learning the Total Control method. They reported back to their bases excited and enthused about the courses, leading Navy and Air Force base commanders and safety officers – aware of the motorcycle-death statistics among military personnel – to arrange Total Control training for their troops. A Code of Safety. The Pentagon's overall blessing for Parks' courses has yet to be given. Thanks to the Marine Corps, that may change soon. The Marines have been experimenting with outsourced motorcycle-safety training for years. The first vendor vetted by the Corps was racing guru Keith Code and his famous California Superbike School. Code's son, Dylan – the company's project manager – says Superbike's involvement with the Marine Corps began in 2006. The California Superbike School is not for beginners. The strict training course is usually staged on an airfield with a faux race track laid out on it, emphasizing high-performance riding on a chunk of land about 200 feet by 1,500 feet. Even with a discount for Marines, the charge is about $1,000 per student. As a result, the course is offered on a somewhat limited basis. But Dylan Code says the school has been a tremendous success and has an almost perfect post-training safety record. Parks' Total Control program requires far less real estate and costs less, a fact Code doesn't dispute. In fact, he has nothing but praise for Parks and his program. "Lee Parks is a true motorcyclist, a part of the inner circle and a major asset to the industry," Code says. "People don't realize just how much Parks contributes to the sport." Parks says the most valuable thing about his Total Control program may be that it gives motorcycle riders tools for self-analysis. "In their riding, they will know what is right and what is wrong, and can make corrections on the fly," he says. Parks' clinic can be staged in a parking lot-sized area at low speed and, Parks insists, with no compromise in the development of high-speed skills. "What we teach can be translated into any speed," he says. "But interestingly, it often slows down riders who tend to ride too fast and makes them safer." Parks' graduates tend to replace their need for speed with the challenge of riding smoothly and precisely, he says. Earlier this year, 400 Marines from West Coast bases evaluated the one-day Total Control and its more advanced, second-day Total Control II. From the beginning, Parks heard great feedback. Col. William "Sonny" Liston, deputy commander of Marine Corps Installations West, was one of the first Marines to complete the two-day motorcycle program. He reportedly was so impressed with Total Control that he recommended the Pentagon offer the courses to any and every Marine who rides. The Pentagon listened and, in mid-May, the Marine Corps officially sanctioned the Total Control Advanced Rider Clinic, as well as Keith Code's California Superbike School. The Marine Corps requires any members who ride motorcycles to complete and pass a training course every three years. Parks says he's pleased by the move. But he's already pushing for the other service branches to allow him to help improve safety for other warrior bikers, too. "Our training is a natural for the military," Parks says. "It's holistic. It combines high-performance racing techniques with martial-arts discipline and inner focus." Craig Roberts is media relations manager for The American Legion.